Cellar Dweller/Catacombs Double-Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2015)
Cellar Dweller (1988)
The promising career of a horror comic book artist ends in a fiery death when he confronts the bloody carnage of his own imagination in his studio. Years later, an ardent devoteé of the artist's work becomes a resident in his house, now an art academy, unaware that her imagination has revived the grotesque murderer of the past...and that she may be the next victim. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
The late John Carl Buechler’s Cellar Dweller is a best case example of the type of creature feature that Charles Band’s Empire Pictures was capable of producing in the late ‘80s. Rubbery, yet somehow still convincing creature effects? Check. Supporting role from a cult favorite actor who Band himself had a hand in discovering? Check (it’s Jeffrey Combs). Colorful, evocative photography from Lucio Fulci’s favourite cinematographer, Sergio Salvati? Check. Just enough violence to please horror fans, but not too much as to place basic cable syndication rights in jeopardy? Check. A storyline seemingly built around available props and sets? That’s a big check (posters from other Empire productions line the walls of the main character’s studio).
Following a delightfully campy prologue – one that might’ve fit in better with a larger anthology movie (Combs is firing on all cylinders) – Cellar Dweller is stretched thin over a barely feature-length runtime (77 minutes, including substantial opening and closing credits) and suffers from a real lack of focus. The idea of comic book art coming to life is interesting enough, but Buechler isn’t really able to make the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality work for him. It’s still difficult to actively dislike the film, given the ambitious concept, Salvati’s gorgeous photography, and a troupe of genuinely likeable characters. At the very least, Cellar Dweller serves as good practice for special effects artist-turned-director Buechler and first-time screenwriter Don Mancini. Unfortunately, Buechler’s directing career more or less peaked in ’88 when he made both this film for Band and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood for Paramount, but Mancini endured, due to his status as the creator of the Child’s Play series, first as writer, then as creative lead and, later, director through two soft reboots. Cellar Dweller caters to both Buechler and Mancini’s strengths, from charmingly slimy, full-body creature effects, to occasionally witty and savvy of the dialogue (“Aren’t you a little old for comic books?”/ “Aren’t you a little young to be so critical?”).
Cellar Dweller was released on solo DVD in the UK via 101 Films, then more recently via Scream Factory as part of a four film set with David Schmoeller’s Catacombs (see below), Fabrizio Laurenti’s Contamination .7 (aka: Crawlers, 1993), and the multi-director-made The Dungeonmaster (aka: Ragewar, 1985). Both releases were cropped to 1.33:1 and had been more or less VHS quality transfers. This new Blu-ray opens with a title card warning that the HD transfer was created from the only surviving element – a film print from the MGM vaults. It warns that “some video and audio anomalies may be present.” With that in mind, I expected a disaster, but this might actually be one of the better MGM scans I’ve seen from Scream Factory. The grain structure is a bit flat and shows signs of less than perfect telecine scanning, but the clarity is impressive, the details are tight without haloes, and Salvati’s smoky layers and thick shadows are very nicely maintained. The colors are quite vivid, including the softer skin tones, neutral interior hues, and the hyper-bright late-‘80s pop art influences. There is some substantial print damage throughout the transfer – some chemical stains, some scratches, and even a tear or two – but it isn’t a consistent issue.
As far as those threatened audio anomalies go, it’s honestly difficult to care. The original stereo mix is nicely preserved in 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, including a number of overtly stylized sound effects that I suppose might be off-cue, but don’t seem problematic to my ears. In fact, the directional enhancements seem to have worked pretty well, aside from perhaps the stereo spread sounds of the creature growling. The dialogue has a consistent volume levels and isn’t lost in the effects. Carl Dante’s music is underutilized and a bit quiet on the track, but certainly fits the Empire/Full Moon template.
For over 400 years, the curse of the Abbey at San Pietro was kept a secret. Buried deep beneath the monastery lies the Beast of the Apocalypse. The power of evil is unleashed when an American priest and a beautiful young school teacher uncover the unholy terror of a diabolical spell cast centuries ago. Now, it will take the ultimate sacrifice to stop the curse that will not be denied. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
Writer/director David Schmoeller’s Catacombs (1988) is another typical Empire/Charles Band special and was produced around the same time as Cellar Dweller, utilizing some of the same staff, including Sergio Salvati. It is somewhat more lavish than the average Empire release, but was not released for nearly five years (likely due to studio’s bankruptcy problems, though Band would regroup with Full Moon Pictures shortly afterwards) under the misleading title Curse IV: The Ultimate Sacrifice (note that none of The Curse films have anything in common beyond the title they were saddled with). Schmoeller had developed a solid reputation in the horror community, following his feature debut Tourist Trap (1979), a unique spin on emerging slasher motifs that were so popular in the wake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). He also directed a studio-backed thriller, The Seduction (1982), before joining forces with Band and Empire for the underrated psychological horror/dark character study, Crawlspace (1982). That was followed by a relationship that lasted through the Full Moon years, including Catacombs, the original Puppet Master (1989), and Netherworld (1992). Like fellow Empire/Full Moon staff director, Stuart Gordon, his films tend to be characterized by slick, colorful photography and an ironic sense of humor.
Gordon is a good point of reference in this case, because he also made largely gothic horror for Band (under the Full Moon banner). Two of those films, The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) and Castle Freak (1995), made use of similar (sometimes the same) actual castle locations. Schmoeller arguably comes out ahead in terms of pure visual strength, thanks largely to Salvati’s impossibly good photography. The screenplay, on the other hand, though even more ambitious than Cellar Dweller, is not up to Gordon’s typically high standard. Still, Schmoeller’s brand of nonsense is quite entertaining at times, on the level of some of the gothic horrors coming out of Italy a few years earlier. Again, Salvati’s influence and experience on Fulci masterpieces (namely City of the Living Dead [Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi; aka: Gates of Hell, 1980]) is probably the key component. The gore doesn’t approach the same level of absurdity as the early ‘80s spaghetti terror flicks (in fact, I’m surprised the film got an R-rating rather than PG-13), but the overall craft, from performance to props, is stronger than you’d see from an entirely Italian produced movie in 1988. The one exception would be Michele Soavi’s The Church (Italian: La Chiesa), which would be released a year later and which has quite a bit in common thematically and visually with Schmoeller’s movie (though Soavi’s superior technique wins out in this case).
Catacombs made its DVD premiere with the aforementioned Scream Factory four-movie set. That version was anamorphically enhanced and looked half-decent. There was also a Netflix streaming version that seems to have been available in SD. This time, there is no warning of the print’s condition and I have to say that I’m pretty impressed. There are some minor signs of compression, including some inconsistent clarity levels and slightly fuzzy edges, but the overall image is shockingly clean. Grain hasn’t been digitally scrubbed, yet remains fine and is never abrasive. Print damage is quite minimal, aside from some small black and white flecks here and there. Details are tight enough for those Salvati smoke and dust effects to work and the depth of field is better maintained than the previously mentioned DVD version. The palette is mostly natural with lots of earth tones, grays, and brown clothing, but there are standout hues, such as the green of the countryside and orange of the candle-lit interiors.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo soundtrack is, like the Cellar Dweller track (as well as Scream Factory’s other Empire efforts) amusingly overwhelming at times. Most dialogue and incidental effects are modest and centered, while all of the more outrageous ‘canned’ and foley effects are ridiculously widely spread, not to mention considerably louder than the more natural sounds beneath them. Italian composer Pino Donaggio supplied the sumptuous keyboard, string, and choral score (possibly his first for a Band production and his third with Schmoeller). The music also overwhelms the dialogue and effects, but one gets the feeling this was an intended effect.
The only extra on this double-feature set is a Catacombs commentary with Schmoeller. It’s an underwhelming track in terms of the writer/director’s energy levels and endurance, but there is considerable (often not screen-specific) information about the super-low budget production.